In the spring of 2004, Eugene O'Kelly had a premonition: Trouble was coming. He couldn't make out its shape or size, and the only response he could think of was to move from the townhouse in Manhattan he shared with his wife, Corinne, and their 12-year-old daughter, Gina, to a smaller apartment in the city. At the time, O'Kelly was chairman and chief executive of KPMG International, the accounting firm where he had worked for three decades. He was 52, at the peak of his career, feeling, as he would later say, "vigorous, indefatigable, and damn near immortal."
A year later he and Corinne had sold their house and most of their furniture and found a light-filled aerie overlooking the East River. Around the same time, Corinne noticed that the right side of her husband's face was sagging. He agreed to see a neurologist after he returned from a business trip to China by way of Seattle, where he would attend the Microsoft CEO Summit. Back in Manhattan the weekend before his appointment, he and Corinne were at a U2 concert with longtime clients when suddenly Corinne bolted from her seat. "I feel like our world is about to blow apart," she told her husband.
Within a week, Gene was diagnosed with inoperable late-stage brain cancer and, though no doctor would come right out and say so, he knew he couldn't expect to live past the summer. He died at home on Sept. 10. During those 100 days he worked with his wife and writer Andrew Postman to chronicle his attempt to face death with as much brightness, if not hope, as possible. Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life was published this month by McGraw-Hill, which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies. The book wasn't intended as a guide, Corinne says, but Gene was a mentor, and that instinct remained intact. His advice is simple: Confront your own mortality, sooner rather than later. As he says: "I'll be glad if my approach and perspective might provide help for a better death -- and for a better life right now."
Gene was methodical, organized, unequivocating, thorough. He was an accountant by temperament as much as by training. Faced with imminent death, he wanted to be the master of his farewell. "I wanted these things, and only these things: Clarity. Intensity. Perfection.... I was motivated to 'succeed' at death -- that is, to try to be constructive about it, and thus have the right death for me. To be clear about it and present during it. To embrace it."
In early June he resigned from KPMG, started six weeks of radiation treatment to try to shrink the three tumors and diminish the symptoms (blurred vision, garbled speech, and certain cognitive impairments) that had begun to emerge. And he made a to-do list for his final days: get legal and financial affairs in order, unwind relationships, simplify, live in the moment, create (but also be open to) great moments, begin transition to next state, plan funeral. He recognized how Type A this was, yet what it required of him was the very opposite -- to let go. As he says: "While I do believe that the business mindset is, in important ways, useful at the end of life, it sounds pretty weird to try to be CEO of one's own death.... Given the profoundness of dying, and how different its quality felt from the life I led, I had to undo at least as many business habits as I tried to maintain."
With Corinne's guidance he began to meditate in the morning to help develop the mental discipline they both believed he would need in those last moments of life. It was on one of those mornings, when he had been sitting in the courtyard of the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in Upper Manhattan, with a fountain running in the background, that he told her he wanted the two of them to write a book about his dying.
Corinne says now that she was initially ambivalent about the idea: At the time she was managing Gene's medical care, meeting with lawyers, concerned about Gina and their elder daughter, Marianne. She knew the project would sap Gene's energy. But he wanted to share what he called his spiritual journey, and he wanted to leave his daughters something. "The last gift I could give him was to let him do it his way and to make his dying as beautiful as possible," Corinne says, sitting in the living room she has only recently furnished.
From that moment in the Cloisters until the last week of his life, Gene wrote down his thoughts on a yellow legal pad or dictated them to his assistant. He worked intermittently throughout the day while also meeting with colleagues, friends, and family to, as he says, close their relationships. He also kept in touch with the new chairman of KPMG by phone. That summer the firm would admit to criminal tax fraud and agree to pay $456 million in penalties, a settlement that he had been working on. (He would say to Corinne: "This can't be another Enron.") Corinne says the fact that the case had been resolved helped Gene die peacefully.
At KPMG one of Gene's priorities had been to change the firm's culture -- to make it more compassionate, a place where, he would later say, "we felt more alive." He wanted his staff "to get the most out of each moment and day -- for the firm's benefit and the individual's -- and not just pass through it." But as the head of the 20,000-employee company, he had remained relentlessly focused on the future, willing to sacrifice his home life for the satisfactions of the job.
In those last few months, though, he came to realize, he says, that his thinking had been too narrow, his boundaries too strict. "Had I known then what I knew now," he says, "almost certainly I would have been more creative in figuring out a way to live a more balanced life, to spend more time with my family." That, says Corinne, was his one regret. He had been getting better at finding that balance before he became sick, she says, but then he ran out of time.
By Susan Berfield